It's stabbin' time: sparring with the German longsword
Recently, I've been thinking about the role of the thrust in longsword fighting. In some ways it relates a bit to the jab in boxing, although there are important differences as well. I'm writing this post to help clarify my thoughts a bit.
I've been practicing with the local ARMA group for maybe a year or so, focusing on German longsword. For anyone not familiar we practice techniques taken from historical Renaissance manuscripts, some of which may be found here: http://wiktenauer.com/wiki/Main_Page
Although fighting with armor is historically important, since none of us owns a suit of armor, we're focusing on the unarmored combat, also known as Bloßfechten.
The biggest difference between a longsword, and any other type of improvised weapon such as a pitchfork or makeshift spear, is that when used as a cutting weapon, the sword can be used to control the opponent's weapon as soon as it makes contact. You can hook the other guy's weapon on your crossguard, knock it offline, and since you've got two edges, flick your wrists and bash the opposite edge into his skull. Or, if the guy blocks you coming one way, flick, you whip around and hit him from the other direction, although you lose control of the other guy's weapon for an instant when you come off it, which is a risk. You've got a lot of agility and a lot of control over the other person's tool when you're the knight with the sword and the other guy is some angry peasant with a makeshift weapon.
When I first started out, unarmed striking combat, i.e. boxing, was the only mental frame of reference I had when I tried to understand the medieval longsword. As I gained more experience with the longsword, I began to feel like the differences between boxing and longsword use were more important than the similarities. But now as I gain yet more experience, I'm starting to see some big-picture similarities again.
Swordsmanship requires deep stances, like what you see in karate or kungfu. You need a really solid and stable base to swing it effectively. At the same time if your posture is too high, and you're more or less standing upright, it actually makes it easier for your opponent to bash you over the head with his sword, because of how the guards and postures work out. "Be small in body but big in sword" is what one of the old manuals says. So in this way it's different than boxing, where the opposite is true, and a guy in a horse stance is going to get jacked up by a guy in a boxing stance.
That being said, I know from some test cutting we have done on meat that the cuts from these swords tend to produce more blunt trauma and crush damage and broken bones, as opposed to clean and deep cuts. This is in part because of the geometry of the blade, being straight, and also because the European swords aren't razor sharp, nor are they really designed to be, since in some techniques you grab your sword by both the grip and the blade in order to ram it into your opponent, or pickaxe his skull with your crossguard.
But when you would thrust at a piece of meat with the sword, it would slide in so easy. It felt like pushing through warm butter. Schhlccck. It didn't matter if you covered the meat with leather, it would just sink in there with an oddly sensual feeling of only very light resistance. The blunt trauma from this kind of penetration, when the sword hit bone, could spinter the bone as well, if you did it with a lot of force.
So in many ways the thrust is actually more capable of causing an immediate lethal injury than a cut, especially when you think A-box thrusts where you're going to be driving a big metal thing into someone's lung or heart. If you think about a thrust to the head, even if you didn't get the point into an eye socket or anything, it's pretty grisly to think about how you might remove a strip of face-flesh from the guy's skull if the tip of your blade slides along the skull instead of penetrating.
The problem with thrusting is that when it comes to this longsword fighting, based on your stance, you tend to be committed either to cutting and binding the other guy's weapon, or to thrusting and deflecting. This is basically because you're set up to cut when you are holding the sword high and pointing at the sky, or to counter-cut if you're holding the sword low and pointing at a diagonal towards the ground, which are two of the historical stances, or you're set to thrust when you're holding the sword high and pointing at the opponent, or low and pointing up at the opponent on a diagonal, which are two of the other historical stances.
So if you're standing in a thrusting position, you can't really cut without changing how you're holding the sword first, and likewise with the cutting position.
Since the cutting is so versatile I used to use it most of the time. I also tended to get countered when thrusting because I now realize I had the wrong mindset about thrusting.
Now, I use thrusting more often and switch to cutting when I feel on the defensive. The key to thrusting is to circle aggressively and use it like a jab. Feel the other guy out and/or frustrate him. So instead of just standing there and aggressively thrusting with lots of power, I focus on circling around the opponent as fast as I can in my super deep sword stance, and if I am too far to thrust at his face or chest, I will thrust at his hands. What I have found is that if you keep this pressure up on the opponent for long enough, there's a chance that he's going to try to cut at you, and at that point in time, you have a chance to land a solid A-box thrust on him as he's moving forward.
The textbook defense to a thrusting attack is to step offline and use a high cut onto the thruster's hands. But, if I am thrusting with the right agility and the right circle-stepping, that counter cut is more likely to miss, since it is coming from off to the side, due to the evasive step. If my opponent misses with his counter-cut, and I am keeping my sword pointed at him as I circle around him, there's a good chance that he's going to end up walking into or leaning into my sword and taking one hell of a thrust.
Basically you just need to make the opponent miss with a cut, and he can practically impale himself on your thrust. But to get to that point you use the thrust like the jab, by circling aggressively, keeping the pressure up, and going for the hands when you don't have a real chance of getting an A box hit.
Last edited by Wounded Ronin; 4/17/2011 8:42pm at .
Young knight, learn
to always honour women, and love God,
so increase your honour.
Practice chivalry and learn
arts which improve you
and in the battle bring honour.
Wrestle well, understand the
lance, spear and sword
and use the knife like a man.
Storm forwards: Hit or miss;
hate that which seeks to cut them.
This you shall understand:
all arts have length and measure.
Do what you wish to do
with good understanding.
In earnest or in play
have good heart with measure.
Thus you beware
and look with good cheer;
this is what you shall do
and how you go against him.
For good heart and force
makes your opponent weak,
govern yourself after this;
never give an advantage for nothing.
Do not be rash;
do not first do four or six.
With your overconfidence be moderate,
which is good for you.
He is a brave man
who fights his own weaknesses.
It is no shame
to flee when four or six (foes) are at hand.
-from one of the oldest manuscripts
Thanks for the link I have been looking for a good hema site.
Last Sunday I sparred with friends and really tried to do my best to use the stab effectively like a good jab in boxing. I spent the whole time in ochs and blasted through a ton of energy by always circling, advancing, and attacking with combos of thrusts. It seemed to be really effective compared to how I sparred before. I felt like using the thrust in this manner made it hard for my opponents to cut at me just like it's hard to right hook someone who circles and presses with jabs. My partners said that the aggression made it real hard to properly set up a counter cut to my thrusts, like with a krumphau or something like that.
Next, I will try to also incorporate cuts into this type of thrusting game. The way I see it, I can think of the cut as a haymaker. You don't want to use it all the time, but maybe if anything it can follow several thrusts, just like how you would generally only want to do a haymaker once it had been set up with jabs.
I am just starting to study German lonsgword, my background is in Fiore's Italian longsword. It seems that thrusting attacks are more difficult in the further measure that German style fighting requites. When they thrust German longsword fighters seem to close with a clearing cut and winding in to a thrust.
We alternate between thrusting and cutting attacks Here are some of our sparing videos.
Last edited by pulphero; 5/26/2011 5:35pm at .
Reason: bad youtube link
I used to open with a cut like you said but decided to experiment with the thrust.
In my mind the skill and athleticism of the thruster matters a lot for this approach. I am in ochs the whole time and advancing on angles the entire time. You really need to be aggressive and work your angles so that your opponent misses when he attempts to sidestep and krumphau to your hands.
You cause the miss by keeping your opponent off balance with your crazy aggression. It is a bit like using a spear.
I have noticed that if I happen to miss with a committed thrust I am really open to a counter cut, so again, it's kind of like using a spear.
The thing about cutting and then winding to a thrust in my mind is that tends to lead to grappling. We are in the bind, we both wind immediately, someone goes to krohn while stepping forward, and all roads lead to judo.
If I'd rather decisively stab a man instead of scewing around with judo or someone pulling a training knife on me while we grapple while holding swords, I feel like I am more likely to get that result by initiating with thrusts.
EDIT: Another thing I feel is important, since you mentioned the longer measure, is not overextending your reach when you hold the sword. You need to be able to surprise and catch people by extending your arms suddenly, which you can only do if your arms are pulled back as much as possible when you are standing in ochs. No choo-choo train thrusts with walking into the opponent with an already mostly extended blade. It's like how in judo you won't get any throws off if you are stiff arming the whole time. You have to let the guy in a little bit in order to really be able to get him good.
Last edited by Wounded Ronin; 6/03/2011 12:03pm at .
How are you keeping your opponents from tipping down your sword during the thrust?? I seem to get countered alot on thrust by either a small return slash or a lock up from their cross-guard.
These are really important points for thrusting in general. Raw aggression is often required to get past someone defending against your thrusts, since the risk of being krumphau’ed or shielhau’ed in the middle of your attack is pretty high if they are half experienced. You can often break someone’s counter-attack with a really aggressive thrusting mindset, especially since you can cut their hands and arms in the middle of their counter-attack.
Originally Posted by Wounded Ronin
Additionally you do need to keep your arms from being overextended, since keeping it overextended will either A) make your thrust weak or B) force you to pull back your arms and then thrust; both will leave you open to a counter-attack.
Are you thrusting from the bind or from the approach range? If from the bind you may need to make sure you are getting a bind with your strong on their weak, which should give you the superior leverage. If from the approach you might need to combo your thrust in there. Start with a feinted cut and turn it into a thrust when they cannot defend themselves. Maybe give them something easy to counter and turn it into rapid cut as they try to counter your false attack. Thrusts from the approach can be easy to deflect if it is obvious, therefore you should consider masking your thrust in a cut.
Originally Posted by Bneterasedmynam
There's a thrust counter in FMA where you do an angled inward parry followed immediately with a sliding backhand thrust to the face (usually followed by a downward cut to the wrist). Is this a longsword thing too?
Not sure I'm visualizing it correctly, but essentially you are parrying with the point of your weapon pointing behind or to the side in order to do this backhand thrust? Or this not the case? If it is the case, I'm not sure off the top of my head that something like this exists with the longsword. Then again I haven't exhaustively looked through all of my manuals, but I tend to find in general that when your point is off to the side or behind you it is better to bring around and cut to a high opening.
Originally Posted by Permalost
For example if you are half-swording with your pommel forward (and thus point behind or to the side) and you parry an oncoming thrust, it is better to follow it up with a pommel to the face and possibly a Mordschlag (always in good taste). Or let us say that a thrust is coming in and you parry with the strong as you rotate the sword with the point to the side, instead of rotating the sword back for a thrust you can just step forward and behind him for a cut to his neck.
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